I did do some research to get an idea of what my splits should look like for a 7hr finish. Even though I'd be going by feel I wanted to be able to monitor my progress, in order to know if I was going out way too fast or just to give me motivation to run hard if it looked like I was on target. I knew Brian Rusiecki would be racing, and with his three wins in the past four years he'd be the obvious favorite. I figured if I kept my pace under control, stayed behind Brian, and ran my own race I stood a good chance of being very happy with my result. When I saw that the weather would be ideal I became even more hopeful, and then my mom surprised me by deciding to come watch and crew for me. The deck was stacked for a perfect day at Vermont, and I went into the race feeling confident and relaxed.
I drove to Ascutney alone on Sunday in order to check in and have some time to get ready and to see all the friends I hoped to connect with before the race. The pre-race time passed quickly as I chatted with friends, managing to see everyone I'd been looking for and to wish them a good race. My mom showed up twenty minutes before the start and I introduced her to Jenn and Heather, who would be crewing for their husbands and would keep my mom company for much of the day.
I started at the front, next to women's favorite Aliza Lapierre and some fast guys I know (Canadians Keith Iskiw and Adam Hill), and settled into a comfortably fast pace as soon as the gun went off. For a moment I was in the lead, but happily let a group of guys pass and open up a gap on me within the first couple of minutes. The lead pack was ten strong and included Brian Rusiecki, the only one I recognized and the one I didn't want to try to keep up with. I followed alone about 100 feet back, with another lone runner a little ways behind me, then Aliza and another woman (probably Amy Rusiecki) following him. We quickly hit a steep climb (new to me, due to a Hurricane Irene reroute) and I walked it, allowing the lead pack to widen the gap a little more as they all ran. I knew some of the leaders would come back to me, and more importantly I didn't want to be caught up in any of the early competition that might prevent me from running my own race.
Somewhere in this early stage I passed a few more runners and eventually found myself running with Brian Rusiecki and another runner. Whoops! I introduced myself to Brian and commented that I wasn't supposed to be near him, and upon hearing my name his companion turned and introduced himself to me as Kevin Tilton, who I'd never met but knew of due to his mountain running prowess. A couple more runners were also in this new lead pack, including a tall Québécois who I didn't recognize but who looked to be running extremely comfortably. At one point he pulled off into the woods to pee, lost some ground, and then came loping back to the pack as if he was out for an easy jog. I wasn't comfortable in this company, so when a short steep section offered a chance to hike I took it, allowing Brian, Kevin and the fast Canadian to run ahead.
The long sections of single track toward the end of the race forced the pace to slow somewhat, giving me a nice chance to rest the legs without feeling like I was losing ground. By now I had moved up in the field to the point where I was running with bikers who seemed to care about their time and racing as best they could, and they passed downhill at a pretty good clip while being less inclined to hit the brakes until a safe place to pass presented itself. Most were still great about communicating and being very safe, but a few were clearly tired and one in particular passed me on multiple downhills without bothering to tell me he was coming or what side he was taking. This led to a couple close calls and not a small amount of stress on my part, and all the time spent running out of the track to make way for mountain bikers must have slowed me, but it was also exciting and probably helped to keep me focused.
I love the last 3 miles of the race, which take place on the side of Ascutney ski resort, so I was pumped to hit the final aid station and hand my pack off to my mom so that I could run the final miles unencumbered. I grabbed coke and ginger ale at the aid station to settle my slightly queasy stomach and started to push the pace up the switchbacks of the final climb, knowing that I was almost finished and had plenty of energy to kick it in.
On the final switchbacking descent I looked back uphill to see a shirtless runner moving well, and thinking it was another 50 miler I started sprinting downhill to avoid a race to the finish. After a minute of this I realized I had it in the bag and relaxed, enjoying the feeling of accomplishment that comes with knowing you gave your best effort and ran the "perfect race." I thanked my mom, who was cheering from the hillside near the finish line, and crossed the finish line in 6:40:29, good for third and much faster than I had allowed myself to hope I could run at Vermont.